Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox is someone I admire. As a clinical psychologist and researcher living in Israel, he has researched a social and religious phenomenon about a subject that many of us rabbis would sooner deny than admit: there are an increasing number of Orthodox and Conservative atheist rabbis! By “Orthodox,” I do not necessarily mean your typical Modern Orthodox rabbi. For Shrell-Fox, his list includes Zionist Orthodox and Haredi rabbis.
By now, I hope I have your attention.
These rabbis have something in common: they live religiously duplicitous lives. During the day, they function as icons of their faith, but when nobody is watching them, they live in an “atheistic closet.”
According to Shrell-Fox’s study:
- Most of them are still there because they love community life, their friends, the Kiddush after the Shabbat morning prayer. Most of them are 40 and 50 years old – not exactly an easy age to start a ‘cultural emigration.’ Moreover, and that’s a very important parameter, most of them make a living off the profession, and their livelihood depends on their faith, even if [that faith is] just outwardly [observed].
A ninth century Jewish philosopher named Saadia Gaon was the first Jewish thinkers to examine the question: Why do so many people have doubts about their faith in God? Although he was speaking to a medieval audience, his ideas are very relevant for the people of 21stcentury. Saadia writes:
- My heart grieves for humankind and my heart is affected on account of my own people, Israel, who I see in my own time. Many who follow their faith, but they have a distorted understanding of their faith; consequently, their faith is replete with unenlightened views and absurd beliefs that are current among those who follow Judaism. Others, who deny their faith, proudly denigrate their unbelief, ridiculing those who truly believe . . . I also saw people drowning in a sea of doubt, overwhelmed by the waves of confusion with no diver to raise them up from the depths, with no swimmer to bring them to rescue . . .
I wonder: If Saadia were living in the present, what would he say about today’s times? Had Saadia lived in today’s era, he most certainly would have spoken about the state of spiritual anarchy that is so pervasive in today’s religious societies.
Men and women of all faiths have abdicated their responsibility to care and shepherd their people. Every day, there are countless stories about clergy either participating or covering up crimes of pedophilia, fraud, or committing what seems to be an endless string of social crimes. Unenlightened views of God and religion are especially evident in communities around the globe where religious leaders often encourage their followers to commit acts of violence, terror and mayhem against its political foes.
Such amoral behavior hardly inspires belief in a kind or benevolent Deity, especially when God’s followers commit the worse kind of human atrocities and moral indecencies in God’s Name! Religious people are guilty of the worse kind of moral atheism that makes people proudly say, “I cannot believe . . .” Is it not any wonder why serious-minded people have arrived at the conclusion that religion is an illusion that has long outlived its contemporary usefulness?
While I commend Dr. Shrell-Fox for interacting with the disillusioned rabbis he has encountered, whose stories he has recorded, I would not really call these rabbis “atheistic.” The term “atheist” derives from the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning “without god(s).” However, the Greek letter ἄ (alpha) may connote something oppositional and it could mean, “against God.”
The real atheist is not someone who is lost in a state of agnosia, “not knowing” whether there is a God or not. Grappling with the absence of God’s Presence and reality is a theological theme that permeates much of the Tanakh. Perhaps the most famous prayer is found in Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help,
from my cries of anguish?
My God, I call by day, but you do not answer;
by night, but I have no relief. (Psalm 22:2)
Within the Jewish community, the real atheists are the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis who use their religion to exploit the public for any kind of pecuniary gain—regardless how insignificant it might be. The real atheists are the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis who seek to expand and dominate the collective psyche of their communities; such demagogues have no respect for contrary viewpoints. They wish to homogenize all Judaic thought into a monolithic formula that promises salvation to those who believe and damnation to those who won’t believe or vote for the religious candidate of their choice. 
The modern critics of religion since the time of Spinoza, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Hitchens, Dawkins and others, have done a marvelous job in pointing out the inner corruption and deceit that exists within the religious world of the “true believers.”
Religious minded people owe these secular thinkers a great debt of gratitude. They behave much like the biblical prophets of old, demanding that we throw our false idols out of God’s Temple. Rabbinical wisdom bears testimony to this obvious truth. Someone asked Rabbi Reuben: What is the most reprehensible act a man a person can possibly do? He replied, “to deny God’s existence. For no man violates the commandments, ‘You shall not murder’, ‘You shall not steal’, till he has already renounced his faith in God.” (Tosefta Shavuoth 3, end)
Maimonides would probably have more in common with an atheist like Christopher Hitchens than one might imagine. For Maimonides, before one can arrive at a belief of God that one can logically accept, one must first arrive at an understanding of what God is NOT (a.k. a. the via negativa — the path of negation.”) When we read about the religiously inspired violence of the religious fanatics of today’s generation, we are witnessing the atavistic power of religion that deflates and flattens religious consciousness.
We must not let these charlatans destroy all that is good and sacred.
Most importantly, we cannot let them destroy our faith in a moral and ethical God.
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